It’s a few months too early to tell for sure, but I think I’m going to commit to this. Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why, by Sady Doyle (Rookie: Yearbook One, The Book of Jezebel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Lady Things) might be my favorite title of 2016. My pick. Yep. I think it’s the best thing I’ve read this whole year.
Interested? You should be.
First, summon in your brainspace the Modern Trainwreck. I’ll wait. This is probably a young, possibly substance-addicted entertainer in the public eye. Amanda Bynes. Whitney Houston. Amy Winehouse. Miley Cyrus. And the mama of all trainwrecks, the incomparable Britney Spears. Now. Think about the impact these young women have had on our society. We love to hate them. We hate to love them. We vilify them while alive but celebrate them when they’re dead.
If you’ve ever wondered idly about this phenomenon - even if you haven’t! - you must read this Trainwreck.
I was riveted, not only by Doyle's succinct unpacking of the cultural forces that shaped such figures as Britney and Miley but by her frankly wonderful research as she looks at trainwrecks from the past. That’s right. Marilyn Monroe. Billie Holiday. Mary Wollstonecraft. Even Charlotte Bronte! I became fascinated by the idea that trainwrecks are nothing new.
The bit that especially captured my attention was the exploration of Charcot and Freud. These men, experts at analyzing the human psyche, famously zeroed in on female sexuality. After diagnosing female patients with hysteria, Charcot hypnotized and instructed them to perform lewd acts in front of largely male audiences in the name of education. For many, it was titillating. But shameful. That’s right, definitely shameful. Those crazy, sex-starved women, doncha know. The men stared. They couldn’t get enough.
Which, if you haven’t put it together already, set a very strong precedent for a lot of the gawking that happens today. When Doyle compares Charcot’s experiments to modern-day paparazzi upskirt photos and the exploitation of poor Britney’s shaved head, I found myself nodding, wanting to tell everyone I know. Tickets sold for Charcot and Freud exhibitions gave way to the cheap thrills of People Magazine and USAToday. It’s. Still. Happening.
In fact, if we trace trainwrecks back far enough, we end up in Bedlam (Bethlehem Royal Hospital) in London, England, where the layman could pay ten shillings to casually walk through the space and view the depraved inhabitants. This was the hospital’s way of raising extra funds. It didn’t matter if you were related in any way to the inmates or not.
I can appreciate that the author does not make allowances for all of her subjects. Sometimes, cray is just cray. But I believe, as Doyle does, that the hows and whys are always important. If we don’t learn from our own history, then what in the hell are we doing?
Trainwreck’s voice and rhythm are charming, conversational. But the research is nothing short of scholarly - and I know. I’ve written a thesis. In fact, I remember thinking several times throughout the experience that Trainwreck would make a decent women’s studies textbook - minus the f-bombs. Look out for language if you’ve got little ones listening.
Like I said, it may be too early, but I’m going to go ahead and nominate Trainwreck for A.C.’s Best Book of 2016. We’ll just have to see what the committee thinks.
(I’m the committee.)